Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Waiting for Fire, 1

This experience will be part of the third volume of my Napa trilogy:

                  From:    THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR 
                                         SUMMER 2016               

          As smoke thickens and ash falls, an esteemed Napa 
         vintner prepares to save his home and livelihood

By James Conaway

The Valley Fire began on September 12, 2015, and spread to 76,000 acres in Northern California’s Lake, Sonoma, and Napa counties before it was extinguished weeks later. Four people died, and nearly 2,000 buildings, including 1,200 homes, were destroyed.

    Smoke hangs in the branches of Douglas firs massed on the ridge line. On most days, Randy and Lori Dunn, who live just below it, can see the ragged palisade clearly. But on this September day in Napa County, the trees are indistinct, receding farther as the day progresses and the sky darkens. By 7 p.m. it is black, and although the fire is still a dozen miles away, the smell is inescapable.
    The Dunns close the windows, turn on the air conditioner, and go to bed. At 2:30 a.m., they wake up to flashing lights in the driveway: the sheriff has arrived to tell them that a 50-mile-an-hour wind is blowing the fire their way, and White Cottage Road is being evacuated. Since Lori has recently undergone shoulder surgery, this news means putting on a sling before she can place framed photographs of children, parents, grandparents, and friends into a cardboard box with one hand.
    That she has to choose which faces to save and which to discard does not seem fair at such a lonely hour. Randy taps his iPad to track what is being called the Valley Fire—not for Napa Valley, but the valley to the north, in Lake County, where 40,000 acres have burned already. It is safe to say the fire is out of control despite a score of fire engines, two dozen dozers, and a thousand souls laboring to contain it.
    If the fire comes farther south, it might well climb Howell Mountain’s northern flank, race along the ridge, and come down through the firs and ponderosa pines that extend into the very midst of their lives. Then it could consume things as precious to the Dunns as their photographs: house, outbuildings, a couple of million dollars’ worth of bottled cabernet sauvignon, and the new 2015 vintage still on the vines; also a vegetable garden, the huge fig tree dropping more fruit than they and the birds could eat, and nearby Wildlake, 3,000 acres of wilderness high on the eastern perimeter of Napa Valley. The Dunns have saved it once before.
    Lori takes off her brace in frustration and carries the box of photographs out the kitchen door, past a sign that reads Grandma and Grandpa’s House: Memories made here, and down the outdoor stairs to the little cave where some Dunn wine is stored. She leaves the box there and goes back upstairs for her sewing machine and collection of quilts. Then she hugs Randy and, still in her pajamas, gets into their white SUV to drive to the relative safety of St. Helena, a vertical half-mile below.

    Randy—in Levi’s, boots, and a T-shirt bearing the silhouette of his turbo-prop Commander parked a mile away at the Angwin airstrip—now has to decide what job to do first and the order of all those to follow.

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